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There’s really no way to say this without coming off as crude and crass, so I might as well just come out with it: Watching NASCAR is the perfect cure for the pee-shy man.
Now, I certainly can’t speak for the female population—in fact, I’m not even sure if stage fright afflicts those whose bathroom visits are protected by four stall walls—but for men, whose urethras are all too susceptible to fight-or-flight syndrome, this new discovery changes everything. There isn’t a guy in Guyville who, while thoroughly unzipped and trying to concentrate on the task before him, hasn’t been driven to urinary madness by the looming presence of hulking men hopped up on consecutive 22-oz. beers and too much red meat shifting impatiently for their proverbial turn at bat.
But here at the ESPN Zone—despite there being an endless supply of these hairy-knuckled, full-bladdered behemoths waiting to follow you into the bathroom and stand mere inches from your back—getting conflicted at the commode is never a problem. Because in front of each urinal is positioned a small eye-level television tuned to the Disney-owned sports network.
Tonight, I’m staring at Dale Earnhart, and damned if the speed demon doesn’t do the trick: Cro-Magnon Brandon and his blitzed buddies can’t stop me now; they’ve become nothing more than overweight oafs slurring about who had the better slapshot, Gretzky or Lemieux. (Answer: Pipe down, I’m working here.) There’s even a mini-television dangling above the darkened stall for longer stays. The women’s rooms are said to be equally cable-friendly.
Alas, food and drink aren’t served in the restrooms at this popular theme restaurant, which flamboyantly hogs the northwest corner of 11th and E Streets in downtown D.C. This is unfortunate, because the presence of a bartender by the urinal would spare me the sheer horror of re-entering the rest of this godawful establishment. When the geniuses of theme dining figure out how to integrate food service into toilet architecture—and something tells me that they will—life will be divine indeed.
But in the meantime, the ESPN Zone, a total visual and aural assault on the senses, not to mention a cold, plugged-in slap to all things beautiful and intimate about our communicative society, is my choice for the ugliest, meanest, most nerve-rattling joint in the nation’s capital. (Yeah, I’ve been to Garrett’s.) Hell, I’d say it was the single most joie-de-vivre-sucking place on the entire Eastern Seaboard, but I’ve been to the ESPN Zones in Baltimore and New York, and they made me want to put my fist through a mini-TV screen, too.
All I wanted to do was watch a baseball game.
Unwilling to pay a monthly cable bill, I’m forced at times to head out on the town to watch the Orioles lose in the bottom of the ninth. Without a car, I have a slim array of sports venues to choose from: The Lucky Bar on Connecticut Avenue used to be a comfy dive for the casual fan to lay low and pretend he doesn’t care about wins and losses, but it has lately become mobbed with young professionals who desperately want to be bike messengers. And the Rock, a neighbor to the home of the Wizards and Capitals, is a great place to hang out—but only if you’re a disgruntled paralegal in a three-sizes-too-small Brett Favre jersey who engages in more homoerotic back-slapping than the entire cast of Caligula.
So, on this sticky-wet summer evening, I decided to try out the ESPN Zone, a few easy stops away on the Red Line. Really, now: How bad can it be? Walk in, order a beer, boo Brady Anderson—easy.
Before I even entered the restaurant’s steel-framed glass doors, a slick-coiffed, puffed-chest GW sophomore, strapped down with headphones and wearing militaristic ESPN-logoed sportswear, rat-a-tat-tatted information in my ear: where I could eat if I wanted to wait two hours, where I could eat if I wanted to eat, like, right now, and where I was free to wander if I wanted to spend large sums of money on sweat shirts and video games. (OK, so maybe that’s an exaggeration: He might have been a GW junior.)
Ears pinned back, head spinning, I gurgled a confused answer—”Bar fine baseball”— and staggered forward.
Once I had successfully maneuvered past the initial sentry, I felt the desperate urge to keep moving, because I knew—in fact, I was dead-set positive—that if I stopped, some pimply, fake-cheery Fascist Youth League lackey would tell me I was doing it wrong. Here’s the problem: ESPN Zone employees are called “Production Crew” members, a laughably grandiose title that apparently gives each and every one of the little bastards the absolute power to snap at a tired family of Indiana tourists—and me—that there’s no way in hell they can sit in the replica SportsCenter studio and eat an overpriced burger—not this year anyway.
As I stutter-stepped into the mayhem, the first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t hear anything. Wait, that’s not entirely true: I could hear lots of things—radios, televisions, bells, beeps, and bings, plus a ripe gaggle of screaming kids—and this cacophonous wall of electronic bombilation made me want to pull a double Van Gogh, slip my ears in my pockets, and go have a cry in the closest Taco Bell.
But I just kept moving, because, well, I was really scared.
So now I’m in, and alive, but there are still so many questions: Can I sit there? Can I eat here? Can I lean on this pole? Can I play on this pool table? The answer to all of these questions, of course, is a resounding no. As it turns out, I can’t do much at the ESPN Zone unless I’m told. And when I am told, I have no idea what anyone is saying anyway because (1) I can’t hear a goddamn thing over this racket and (2) even if I could hear a goddamn thing over this racket, everyone is speaking in Production Crew-ese; they’re about as decipherable as lisping Klingons. Thank God ESPN doesn’t do daily rodeo coverage, or else these punks would probably crowd-control with cattle prods.
A Road Map
The decorating scheme in the trilevel ESPN Zone is what decorators like to call “12-year-old boy’s bedroom”: every color on a velvet-painter’s palette, lame memorabilia tacked to the walls, paint-by-numbers art that wouldn’t pass pre-K muster. Twenty-nine satellite receivers transmit the world’s hottest sports action (plus hockey) to some 175 televisions tossed about the place, forcing all the people in attendance—families, young lovers, me—to immediately crane their heads skyward and never even think about making eye contact with another soul until they’re back outside.
On the first floor is the main dining room—the “Studio Grill”—which is segmented into makeshift sets of some of ESPN’s most popular programs, SportsCenter and NHL 2Night included. (Don’t even think about it: The ESPN Zone doesn’t take reservations, and the wait to eat behind the SportsCenter desk is approximately as long as Cal Ripken’s consecutive-games streak.) The second level hosts the main bar and the “Screening Room,” which happens to be the dark center of the universe and something I’ll get to in just a minute.
There’s not much to say about the ESPN Zone’s menu, except that I ordered a plate of crackly dry chicken wings (served in styles Buffalo, BBQ, or “En Fuego,” which just happens to be SportsCenter co-anchor Dan Patrick’s signature line) and the slightly profane Two-Minute Drill steak sandwich (with its secret ingredient of “Boo Yah!” which just happens to be SportsCenter co-anchor Stuart Scott’s signature line). Although the food is neither terrific nor terrible, who can really pay attention when there are so many TVs to watch?
And you will watch them—all of them, big and small, high-def and sadly fuzzed. You’ll watch television all through your salad, all through dinner, and all through dessert. You’ll stay tuned through commercials, infomercials, and bowling highlights you’ve already seen 15 times in the last hour.
The only time you won’t watch TV is when you first step into the basement—and that’s only because you will be temporarily blinded by blinking, strobing, flashing lights. Welcome to the “Arena.” A spacious arcade with high-tech games, this room will take your money before you ever figure out what in the hell you’re supposed to do. This is where Ralph Macchio really wanted to take Elisabeth Shue in The Karate Kid—although here it would take more than a somersaulting Pat Morita to get a shot at any of the good stuff. Every sport and near-sport (and hockey) is represented with a boinking, blaring gizmo—duckpin bowling, bass fishing, whitewater rafting, you name it.
The games all look like fun—and many of the games are indeed fun. (Full disclosure: A good part of my 20s was spent dropping cupcake crumbs on my Nintendo 64 console.) But when you compare the expressions painting the men’s faces to the expressions paining the women’s faces, the effect is, well, unsettling. Testosterone wafts through the air like something that needs to be showered off. The herking, jerking guy patrons look more concerned with beating their pals than impressing their gals. And it doesn’t take Jane Goodall to figure out that this is what happens when men watch sports for several hours over dinner—and then try desperately to re-create the perfect John Elway spiral or the sweetest Tiger Woods putt.
Of course, when there’s a good “bouncy” Arena game such as the mechanical horse race—in which participants ride a mechanical nag while staring at a digital re-creation of the Kentucky Derby—the men—all the men, hordes of men—are more than happy to sit back and watch the ladies—all the ladies, hordes of ladies—give it their giggling, jiggling all. It’s like the first few minutes of a porno with the actors wardrobed by Eddie Bauer.
Which leads us, alas, to the ESPN Zone’s sanctum sanctorum: the Screening Room, a supposed dining room bathed in the devilish red glow of an electronic ticker that spins around the room.The layout is similar to that of a Las Vegas sports-betting parlor, with all the cushy seats aimed at a 16-foot video screen and six 35-inch monitors flanking each side (and, trust me, there’s money being lost here, too: It’s just on crappy nachos instead of busted point spreads). The Screening Room is what life will look like when the National Entertainment State finally is established: comfy furniture, dim lights, high-tech televisions, and not a single moment of human interaction.
Seven booths with personal TVs are lined up in back, a handful of tables and chairs equipped with little radios are in the middle (on the radios, you can select which of the 13 front-and-center TVs you want to barely hear), and seven La-Z-Boys—or, as the Production Crew calls them, “Zone Thrones”—with built-in speakers blaring in each ear are on ground level. (By the way, weekday revelers beware: Washington Post whine-bag Tony Kornheiser, in all his balding, blowhard glory, broadcasts his daily ESPN Radio show from the Screening Room, too. Talk about your bitter beers.)
In the Screening Room on this Saturday evening, men outnumber women a good 30-to-2—not that anyone besides me is really counting. When there’s a “special event” going on—NCAA hoops tournament, World Series, NBA finals—the line to sit in the Screening Room is Space Mountain-esque.
I’ve opted for a middle-ground table, only because, well, I’m really scared. As I strain to hear what my waitress is saying, four college-aged guys—all in Ralph Lauren shirts, Dockers shorts, Nike sneakers—are led to one of the upper-level booths. Although there’s plenty of room to sit around the square-shaped table, they instantly gravitate toward the middle. They huddle around the TV as if they were in Antarctica and this were their only supply of warmth.
Every few minutes, an inconsequential word will blurt out into the blue-cheese-scented cosmos. Never do the disconnected words add up to anything approaching a full sentence. Not when the food arrives. Not when a homer is hit. Not even when one of them changes the channel.
A young blond couple plop down in two Zone Thrones at the end of the row. She turns to talk to her companion, but his hindflanks have already oozed down into the leather. He’s gone comatose. A stein of brew in his right hand, he works the sound remote bolted into the chair’s arm with his fidgety left paw. And with that, the Zone’s newly crowned king gazes up at the screen(s) and forgets to speak. His companion’s night is pretty much over; his, however, has just begun.
An hour later, when the couple finally leaves—she leans over him, pleading; he looks up, pissed—I scoot around to one of the Thrones, nervously glancing over my shoulder as if I had a stolen stereo tucked under one arm. I plop down and immediately feel like a Bond villain; all I’m missing is a fluffy cat in my lap and a plot to destroy the world. There’s even a little button on the side of the Throne that elevates a foot rest.
A guy in the Throne next to me—he’s been there for, approximately, three months—smiles a conspiratorial, women-who-needs-’em grin.
If I were a woman—hell, if I were a man—I’d be absolutely petrified to wait on these guys. Block a game-winning single or a crucial fourth-and-long, and you could get stabbed with a chicken tender.
And then it hits me. But of course: If the evil suits behind the ESPN Empire ever wanted to take over the world, they could simply use the ESPN Zones as recruiting stations! They could put subliminal messages on the back of Anna Kournikova’s ever-visible panties—”Quit Your Jobs!” “Watch More Sports!” “Women? Who Needs ‘Em?!”—and, during the commercial breaks, end civilization as we know it.
The noise, the dead stares, the “Boo Yah!” When it all becomes too much to handle, I slip back into the bathroom for a breather. There’s a good chance I’m alone—the stall door is slightly ajar and the television is flashing a Gatorade ad—but, well, you just never know. There could be a guy curled up in the fetal position. Hiding. Depressed. Angry. Or maybe just waiting for NASCAR. CP